Originally created 12/11/99

Teacher gets 30-year sentence



All of Vanessa Velez-Cruz' good work in school, church and community could not counter the harm she caused in cheating so many parents and students, a judge said Friday in sentencing her to 30 years in prison.

In Richmond County Superior Court, those parents and Aquinas High School students who trusted Ms. Velez-Cruz with thousands of dollars to arrange overseas trips listened as the 48-year-old former school teacher asked for forgiveness.

"Today I ask for forgiveness," Ms. Velez-Cruz said. "One more time I ask my students to forgive me."

Ms. Velez-Cruz, a popular Spanish teacher at the private Catholic high school since 1992, fell from grace in June when 28 Aquinas High students were stranded in Europe. Their accommodations were canceled after Ms. Velez-Cruz's checks to a travel agent bounced.

That was just the tip of the iceberg uncovered by Richmond County Sheriff Investigators Jimmy Vowell and Anita Hopson, District Attorney Danny Craig told the judge Friday.

The investigators found that Ms. Velez-Cruz had systematically stole $227,774 from students and their parents, friends, businesses and charitable organizations from 1993 through 1999, Mr. Craig said.

Ms. Velez-Cruz defrauded the students and parents by creating the false impression that she was depositing monthly installment payments for overseas trips into two business accounts. Actually, Mr. Craig said, she was putting the checks into her own bank account and draining it dry.

On Friday, Ms. Velez-Cruz pleaded guilty to 44 counts of felony theft by conversion; three counts misdemeanor theft by conversion, two counts felony theft by deception; five counts deposit account fraud; one count second-degree forgery, two counts first-degree forgery; one count state income tax evasion; and one count of violation of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act.

As part of the plea agreement, Ms. Velez-Cruz gave up her teaching certificate.

The plea negotiation included a recommendation of a 30-year prison sentence, but defense attorney Pete Theodocion asked Judge Brown to consider a lesser amount of time behind bars.

Ms. Velez-Cruz volunteered countless hours for after-school activities, church work and community involvement, Mr. Theodocion said as he read a long list of her contributions.

"I just don't want the court to lose track of the enormous good she has done," he said.

Mr. Theodocion asked the judge to consider other Richmond County Superior Court sentences given to people in Ms. Velez-Cruz' position -- a man who embezzled $180,000 from his employer received a 20-year probation sentence, and the two medical research doctors who defrauded the Medical College of Georgia of $10 million received five- and 15-year prison sentences.

Calling the case a very unfortunate situation, Judge Brown noted that Ms. Velez-Cruz had done a considerable amount of good, but said he could not ignore the large number of people hurt by her crimes.

"That harm cannot be ignored," Judge Brown said. He also ordered Ms. Velez-Cruz to make restitution to the victims.

ReachSandy Hodson at (706) 823-3226 or shodson@augustachronicle.com.